Sam is NGA’s director of policy and information and trustee of a MAT which has schools across the West Midlands.
With the release of our MATs Moving Forward report in March 2021, we posed and reframed several debates that NGA believe need to happen visibly to move the MAT system forward. As we publish the findings of our annual governance survey 2021 today, how does this new insight progress some of those debates?
Debate one: too much power in the hands of too few people?
The role of trust members continues to exercise thought, I wrote in the MATs Moving Forward report. I said then that the role can be invisible to some and unwarranted by others – an idea we explored in more detail in the recent update to our guidance on ‘academy trusts: the role of members’.
Because of the considerable power members hold by agreeing the articles of association, setting out the rules for how the trust is governed, and appointing the majority of the trustees and, regardless of who appointed the trustees, dismissing them all, it is vital that this role is properly understood and managed.
Back in 2019, in our original state-of-the-nation report on MAT governance, NGA asked the Department for Education (DfE) to focus more on greater separation between members and trustees. NGA committed to continue to argue vigorously for complete separation of power between governance layers and roles.
Each layer should consist of a different set of people to provide effective decision-making. Good governance requires a separation of roles to ensure objectivity and a lack of conflicts and to prevent some individuals ending up with undue power and influence.
Since then the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), most recently in the Academies Trust Handbook, has strengthened the expectation on separation, requiring all trusts to have significant separation (the majority of members different from trustees).
The new survey findings show that the messages and expectations are really hitting home. MATs are relying less and less on overlapping layers of governance in which people serve on more than one layer. Just 12% of MAT trustee respondents were also members of their MAT – compared to 32% in 2020. For chairs, this figure reduced from 54% of respondents in 2020 to 26% in 2021.
One reason MATs sometimes duplicate the same people across multiple layers is to aide communication. It is positive to see that trusts are lowering their reliance on this – 19% of MAT trustee respondents in 2021 said that their board uses having ‘trustees who are also members of the trust’ to communicate between layers of governance, down from 32% in 2020, while those using ‘trustees sitting/governing/observing at a local level’ for communication fell to 41%, down from 50% in 2020.
Debate two: is the local tier being used effectively and meaningfully?
In MATs Moving Forward, I wrote that far more attention needed to be given to the role of the local tier of MAT governance, and how those volunteering locally can be used to best effect to influence trust decisions and make a difference to the pupils in the school they govern.
While there is no legal requirement on MATs to have a local tier, NGA recognised from conversations we had with MATs that there was a strong commitment to local governance with many trustees telling us that during the pandemic they could not have managed their responsibilities with risk assessments without the contribution of academy committees who knew the staffing structures, the premises and the community.
We said earlier this year that the local tier is alive and well, with MATs’ approach to the local tier moving in the right direction – and we are delighted that the survey findings confirm this. Just 3% of MAT trustee respondents said their trust has no local tier. Three-quarters (76%) of trustee respondents said that every school in the trust has a local academy committee while 12% have either a cluster/hub model or a local tier that covers more than one school.
There’s a growing understanding of the importance of commissioning the local tier of governance to obtain and share local views and the board of trustees affording influence to the feedback received. The local tier is almost always better placed in a MAT to develop the listening to stakeholders aspect of governance.
We also said that the local tier is standing the test of time in one form or another, in all but some of the largest MATs. In fact the 2021 survey shows that the 3% of trustee respondents that said their MAT does not have any form of local governance are from trusts with up to 10 schools. Having a local academy committee for every school was by far most prevalent in trusts with 21 to 30 schools while having a local academy committee that covers more than one school was notably most popular in trusts with 11 to 20 or 31 plus schools.
Success is, as it has always been, dependent on getting communication right. We suggested in MATs Moving Forward that the instigation of regular chairs’ meetings, where the chairs of academy committees or equivalent are gathered with the chair of the board of trustees to exchange information, share ideas, practice and plans, and to gather views would be one of the most effective forms of communication. While NGA has been encouraging trusts to do this for several years, we felt that it had not yet become common practice. On the contrary, the 2021 survey shows that chairs’ meetings are the most popular choice for communication between governance layers with 51% of MAT trustee respondents saying their board does this.
Finally, we hoped that the Outstanding Governance Awards may be one place where the advantages of having a meaningful and valuable local governance tier may be seen – and I am delighted that this was the case. Each of our five finalists in the outstanding governance in a multi academy trust category demonstrated stories of success where central and local governance works together as one organisation to best serve their schools. Good practice in building relations with the local tier also shone through some of the finalists in the lead governance professional, clerks and vision and strategy categories. Look out for their experiences being shared at our member events and in Governing Matters.
Debate three: when is big just too big?
One of the most widely debated points arising from MATs Moving Forward was about MAT size. Back in March I said that while there had never been a political statement that a system dominated by large MATs is the end goal it would appear to be the direction of travel, albeit a very slow journey.
Not long after the report, the then Secretary of State for Education made an announcement setting out the government’s vision “for every school to be part of a family of schools in a strong multi academy trust” – but that schools will not be compelled to join a MAT.
In response to that announcement, I said that NGA hoped this would be an opportunity for small, strong trusts that want to, to have a chance to grow. I reiterated our call for regional schools commissioners (RSCs) to make a commitment to working with more smaller trusts and considering them first as a destination MAT, rather than taking the easier option of the better-known, bigger MATs.
57% of MAT trustee respondents to the 2021 survey said that their trust planned to grow in the next year. Those in the smallest trusts with two to five schools were most keen to grow – two-thirds (66%) are looking to take on one or more schools in the coming year but only a quarter (26%) of respondents from that group had expanded in the past year. Respondents from the largest trusts of 21 to 30 and 31 plus schools were least likely to say they plan to grow at 42%.
For MATs that already had 31 plus schools, future expansion weighed more heavily on being asked by the RSC or DfE. Half of the respondents (49%) who said that their MAT planned to grow in response to the government’s vision for every school to be part of a family of schools came from trusts with two to five schools. The bigger the trust of the respondent, the less likely this reason for growth – just 5% of those in MATs with 31 plus schools gave this reason. This demonstrates that it is indeed those smaller MATs that this vision is enticing to grow.